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The Lonely Longhorn Travel Guide: Singapore

My temporary home of Singapore is the first country to be explored in the Lonely Longhorn series. It is an island, a city, and a country all in one. If shown this undersized country’s outline on a Rorschach test, your first instinct might be to describe it as an amoeba with leprosy. Or perhaps as Rashad Bobino wearing a Batman cape.

Caped Crusader?

Singapore’s location - just off the southern tip of Malaysia and only a stone’s throw from the Equator - ensures that the climate remains hot and thick year round. That is, hot like two Stoops brothers arguing over defensive alignments in a wool sock during two-a-days. And thick like the atmosphere of an Arkansas Razorback athletic team’s study hall. Some relief from the heat is provided during the monsoon season, although it can be a little disconcerting to see the indigenous animals walking two-by-two during the worst of the downpours. Regardless of season, one of our favorite pastimes is to sit on the porch and watch the mold grow on our shoes placed outside the front door.

In addition to being climate challenged, Singapore is more expensive than the average American city by an order of magnitude or two. The price of a European luxury import car in the U.S. may get you a basic 2.0 liter Japanese sedan here. And the price of housing is even more scandalous. I can cut the patch of grass I call the front lawn of my small house using toenail scissors without breaking a sweat – and did I mention how hot it is?

So, why does Singapore have such a sterling reputation? Why is it a place where people continue to flock to visit, to conduct business, and to live? Simply because it is the crown jewel of Southeast Asia. Pound for pound, Singapore packs as much economic punch as any country. A veritable Mike Singletary in the world marketplace. The relentless drive for development is pervasive – in companies, in schools, in most everything. Singapore bends over backwards to promote growth with its corruption-averse government, friendly tax structures, and strict enforcement of regulations.

Meritocracy rules here. No exceptions. If Greg Davis lived in Singapore, he would be employed as a trishaw driver. Most likely picked to pedal the visiting Japanese sumo wrestling team members uphill.

Greg says he can get you there faster if he steers from side to side.

All Texas linebacker coaches in recent memory would be appropriately assigned as ballast for the many freighters queued up in the Singapore harbor.

On the academic side, hordes of kids dressed in their school uniforms pore over their textbooks in the local fast food restaurants at night.

Do you want fractions with that?

And best I can tell, the hottest selling items in the shopping malls are practice math tests to help prepare them for the next round of exams in Singapore’s rigorous school system. Damn impressive to see, actually.

The infrastructure positively sparkles. The sleek train system efficiently whisks the country’s ever-growing numbers of millionaires into an ultra-modern downtown business district. Singapore Airlines has been ranked the number one airline in customer satisfaction since about the time of the Wright brothers. Changi Airport provides such a pleasant milieu that you might consider it a legitimate part of your vacation destination when you go.

Singapore’s carefully developed roadways even make for a downright pleasurable commute - if you can momentarily stop calculating the cost of doing so, of course. Mature trees arch gracefully over the pristine, sun-dappled freeways. The city planning is such that some maps are alleged to even note the precise location of many of the trees on the island.

Clearly, Singapore deserves its strong reputation for safety. How safe is it? I turned on the local TV news once and was reading the ticker at the bottom of the screen. News was breaking that a pizza had been stolen from a delivery bicycle over on the east coast of the island. No joke. A purloined pepperoni was deemed worthy of news coverage in a country of 4.5 million people. If one of Mack Brown’s players had been caught lifting a pizza last summer he would have had to run stands for not upholding the team’s far loftier standards.

And then there was the local crime watch show I saw last week. It recounted the tale of a local miscreant who had illegally imported a few hundred cartons of cigarettes without paying import duties. He was selling them clandestinely from his lunch truck at various construction sites around Singapore. The reenacted sting operation on that show worked like a Boise State trick play. Wham! 22 months in the pokey for that particular offender. Singapore’s huddled masses now breathe a little more free and with a little less illicitly imported secondhand smoke.

Yes, if a modern-day Coronado were to veer several thousand miles off course to the west in his quest, he might have declared Singapore to be just a few tortillas shy of being Cibola. Dorothy would immediately deem Singapore to be the equivalent of the Emerald City - sans a Wizard. Of course, devotees of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s visionary leader for most of the past 40 plus years, would argue that he has actually played the Wizard role very adroitly. Lee Kuan Yew’s memoirs about turning this steamy backwater island with only a motivated populace and a natural deepwater harbor as key resources into a gleaming first world nation make for some compelling reading.

Ethnically, Singapore’s population is about 75% Chinese, although it does have sizeable Indian and Malay populations as well. Add a healthy number of western expats from Europe, Australia, and the U.S., and the place becomes a real melting wok. As a former British colony and one of the world’s prominent entrepots, Singapore speaks English more than any other language. However, Mandarin is also pervasive and Tamil and Malay are regularly spoken as well. The British history and first world ambience of Singapore make for much less culture shock for an American than other Southeast Asia locales. As a result, Singapore is affectionately labeled "Asia Light" in the western expat community.

The only real language challenge for Americans is the need to do a little translation from Singapore’s versions of English to our own. Not too difficult. Far easier than, say, interpreting Marques Slocum’s Facebook page. The effort also provides a few laughs and head scratchers along the way. An example: the car model names are annoyingly cheerful. Popular vehicles include the Nissan Sunny and the Toyota Wish. I suspect that I am one of very few people in the world driving around with a "Texas Longhorns – 2005 National Champions" bumper sticker…..on a Toyota Picnic. Can you just see some Singapore toughs somewhere on a Saturday night drag racing their Sunnys and Picnics on the carefully manicured roadways while plotting the next pizza heist?

Other interesting language examples from signs I have caught around town:

A slogan appearing on taxis and shopping mall banners everywhere as part of an annual campaign to keep Singapore safe: "Do Not Lose Your Festive Joy to Crime!"

On a roadway construction signs: "Works ahead. Inconvenience regretted."

On a neatly lettered sign in the men’s bathroom at work: "Please do not place tissue paper in sitting bowl as it causes chokeage. Thanks to your cooperate."

On the banner over the door of a local restaurant: "Famous for Stewed Mud Crab Rice Noodle Soup in Claypot & Braised Shark’s Fin in Superior Shark Bone Stock Pot". Hmmm. Had been looking for that kind of dish without success for a while.

For the piece de resistance, I offer the label of the bottle of whiteboard cleaner in my office. It reads (sic): "This product is made and refined from natural, eatable sea salt and fresh cocos. No harm in human’s skin, chemical-free ingredient is the Most ideal and multi-functional cleaning fluid for environment protection. Abilities of anti-rust and resolving dirty part strongly and Rapidly. It can be preserved for three years under the condition of sealing. Put away from the places in high temperature."

Actually, I am thinking that some of that famous stewed mud crab dish seasoned with my eatable white board cleaner has the makings of one delicious meal.

So there is Singapore for you. Sweltering but advanced, expensive but safe, language quirks but mercifully devoid of real culture shock. Detractors of Singapore will hasten to note that the country’s carefully managed environment renders it stifling and sterile. I counter that they should not lose their Festive Joy about it. And being sterile can be a very good thing. Just ask Travis Henry.

Next stop for the Lonely Longhorn: Malaysia.